The question During Covid, my husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Before he died we had a year together, which was wonderful. He managed to design a bungalow for me as, due to my mobility problems, I couldn’t continue to live in our home of 45 years. The bungalow has now been built in part of our old garden. I am delighted with the whole project. I moved in this year. I sold our old home to friends and having them living in my old house has been very successful. You may ask, what’s the problem? Everything is fine, and it is, except for one thing.
Three months ago, for no apparent reason, I had a day when I just ate and ate and drank and drank. This is totally out of character. I have a healthy diet and only drink socially and then never more than a glass or two.
This bingeing is happening every two or three weeks. I can’t seem to stop myself. I can down around 15 units in such a session and eat a whole cake. Why?
I have no reason to do this. I feel I have coped so well since my husband died and I am as content as I can be with my life without him, except for these dreadful days. What is happening to me? I have not shared this with anyone, because I am so ashamed of my weakness.
Philippa’s answer I want to wrap my arms around you and tell you it’s OK. You have been through so much – losing your beloved husband, the stress of a building project, selling up, moving. You have mobility problems and that’s no joke, and you are now alone. Sure, you have great friends nearby, but you have lost your closest companion and however successful this move has been and however happy you are living in your bungalow, you have had to leave a home where you spent more than half your life.
You are very good about counting your blessings, looking on the bright side and seeing all the advantages of your life as it is now, and these are good things to do, but your losses need acknowledgment as well.
One explanation for your eating and drinking binges is that you are using them to push down any feeling that doesn’t fit into your idea of an ideal positive outlook. Those feelings appear to be threatening to surface and I expect you are scared you will be overwhelmed and never be able to come up for air again, and so you drink and eat them to suppress them. If you allow yourself your grief, it doesn’t have to consume you completely. Think of your grief as being stored in a huge tank that has a tap at the bottom. You have control of that tap. You can turn it half on, full on or you can turn it off. It’s OK to cry. You don’t have to have a “brave face” all the time.
It’s normal, too, to be angry in a situation such as yours, as well as sad. If you outwardly express your feelings about not having your husband around, not being able to run, dance, climb and walk as you used to, not living in your old house any more, having to deal with all the admin of life alone, you won’t cry or rage forever, you can express these feelings for a while and feel a lessening of the pressure afterwards.
It is OK to eat and drink too much sometimes, but not on your own. Eat and drink too much in the company of friends: allow yourself to cry with them, too. You will still be doing well, and will still be mainly content with your life, but you won’t be holding it all in any more. Sometimes we fall apart before we can put ourselves together again.
If your more difficult feelings – sadness, anger – are unacknowledged by you, they will have to shout louder to be heard. Repressing these feelings may even make you ill. So next time you feel a seemingly irresistible urge to binge-drink and overeat, maybe sit with it instead for a while, tell yourself it’s OK to let the grief and pressure rise up, and – this is important – share how it feels. Pick up the phone. Speak to a friend or try the Cruse bereavement helpline on 0808 808 1677 (cruse.org.uk) or the Samaritans on 116 123 (samaritans.org).
You have nothing to feel ashamed about, you are only trying to cope with all the sadness and stresses you’ve recently been through. Tears or raging are not a sign of failure, they can be a healthy way to cope.
I remember when I was first in psychotherapy and I was going over some stuff that I had repressed for years, I was sitting at the kitchen table crying angry tears and writing about it when the doorbell went. I stopped crying, took delivery of a parcel, went back to the table, and recommenced my crying. I told my therapist I thought I must have been faking it if I could stop and start it like that. “I don’t think so,” she said, “because who would you be faking it for as you were on your own?” It was she who gave me the analogy of the tank and the tap. It’s been useful. I hope it is for you, too.
Philippa Perry’s The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) is published by Cornerstone at £18.99. Buy it for £16.14 at guardianbookshop.com
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